FrontLine with Ken Loach

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Legendary filmmaker Ken Loach speaks exclusively to The Canary’s Steve Topple on the state of the Labour Party, how it got there and what the left in Britain could do now.

Video transcript

I’m very pleased to be joined today by legendary filmmaker and political activist and philosopher, I would say, for The Canary today, it is Ken Loach. I think it’s important that we have this conversation today, because as we were talking about off air, it feels like we’re at a pinnacle moment currently within the Labour Party. And obviously, I think a lot of people would be interested to hear your thoughts on what’s happened given what’s been going on recently. Viewers at home will know that you’ve been expelled by the Labour Party for your alleged support of Labour Against the Witchhunt.

Well, I mean, the process is a joke, really. So, I got a letter saying that I’m also expelled. And I thought I’m not taking part in this charade. So I didn’t reply. And then a few days later, another letter comes saying you’re out of the party. I mean, it’s a great relief. It’s leaving an abusive relationship, really. My only concern is for those who are still in and fighting, and I think they should stay in and contest every inch. Because Starmer and his henchmen… there is no due process. There’s no abiding by proper rules, natural justice. The behaviour of officials – paid officials – has been disgusting: suspending parties for no reason; ruling motions out of order that were perfectly proper motions to discuss, like the role of the leadership. To say that a party member cannot discuss what the leadership is doing is so stupid, bizarre, destructive – that these are not rules you can abide by. But good people are there and fighting hard. So absolutely – I respect them for staying.

And you’re actively involved in the, I suppose, fight at the moment, aren’t you? Because you’re supporting Defend the Left, which is the kind of umbrella organisation of people.

Yes. I mean, I think to get a perspective on it, you’ve got to go back to how Jeremy Corbyn was elected in the first place. I mean, it doesn’t make sense unless you know the history even within this four/five-year timeframe. I mean, briefly, the parliamentary Labour Party, when the party leadership was to be chosen, decided it would look better if there was a candidate from the left allowed to stand. Because they’re the right-wing clique really within the whole party. But they thought we’ll give the left a chance; let them stand. So some of the kind of most ardent right wingers voted for Jeremy Corbyn to stand, thinking, of course, he’ll never win. We know the party membership voted for him overwhelmingly. He was, and is, and always will be a very popular man within the party. And he won. And he and John McDonnell developed a transformative programme that would really switch the power within society in favour of the working class, and the people in work, vulnerable people, the neglected areas, people who needed a health service. The public services would be regenerated, restored to first principles, common ownership, popular control of the services and maybe the major industries in time, a foreign policy built on human rights – not supplying arms to corrupt regimes, or apartheid regimes, or brutal regimes – human rights at its centre and a serious attempt to defend the environment. Much too much for the establishment, scared out of their wits. What are they going to do? Well, they cock-up Brexit. The chief cocker-upper of Brexit we know was Keir Starmer, who’s moved from Mr. Bean to being Stalin, now. I mean, Uncle Joe could learn a few tricks from Keir Starmer and his apparatchiks. So they made a mess of Brexit. And then the smear campaign, and we know what the smear campaign was: it was that the party was antisemitic at its core. And this campaign was, interestingly led by the Guardian and the BBC. And when they kicked off, then the right-wing press, well, if the Guardian’s saying it, we can say anything. So the lies that were told about Jeremy Corbyn, I think are certainly as bad as the lies that were told about Arthur Scargill. Worse than the lies told about Tony Benn. And when history is written, I mean, it will be seen as a political assassination. The Labour right wing was determined to remove Corbyn come what may from day one, the moment he was elected. And their feelings intensified, and they got more ruthless, and then this technique of smearing him with antisemitism and racism. I mean, a man more dedicated to counteracting all forms of racism you could not find. But nevertheless. So they were committed to that from day one, so the attack on the left was planned from day one. I mean, he cocked up Brexit, because… But actually, I think the Labour right wing were quite content to lose 2019. Because that was the platform to remove Corbyn. If Labour had done well, Corbyn was more secure. So, I think that was the intention from day one. So, the intention to remove the left from the party makes sense if you think well, look at [Tony] Blair. He didn’t have a large party. He didn’t rely on the members. He spoke directly to the press; bypass[ing] the party, to say to the right wing, to the establishment, the whole establishment: ‘Labour is safe. Nothing will change. Your wealth, your privilege, your power is safe with me, Blair, and [Gordon] Brown leading the Labour Party. Nothing will change’. And [Rupert] Murdoch put his arms around him. Murdoch put his arms around Blair. And that’s the right wing’s model. You don’t want a party full of activists asking difficult questions. Your politics is not based on transforming society in the interest of working-class people. Your politics is based on making capitalism work; giving sufficient profit to business so the crumbs that fall from the table will pay for the public services. Labour has always been founded on this schism. That on the one hand you have the right-wing social Democrats saying that “make capitalism work well and then there’s enough left over for public services”. And their positioning is to say we are quite safe; we’re like the Tories; we’re quite safe to the powers that be, but we’ll steer a few more bob to the people. So, everything, everything Starmer does, every position, he’s just slightly to the left, just slightly. And if the Tories move to the right, he’ll move to the right. The Labour Party is a place where people can struggle; people can fight for ideas. Because the Labour Party under Jeremy became the biggest party in Western Europe, in Europe, from what I remember. 600,000 members. There will still be 100,000 or 200,000 members in there who joined because of Jeremy Corbyn. Many have left. I mean, what is it? 120,000 have left? But there’ll still be hundreds of thousands of people there. So you keep fighting, absolutely keep fighting. Because it’s a question of winning people to these ideas. Starmer and Co would want everyone just to walk away. As I say, he doesn’t want a big party. But I think beyond that – that’s one area that people can fight in. Beyond that, I think this is a very special moment. Because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – his, and John McDonnell’s, and Diane Abbott’s, and others – the groups; Richard Burgon and other MPs, and others who are not MPs now – people in the trade union movement who are coming forward on the left, like Paul Holmes in Unison – and the campaigns, great campaigns: Black Lives Matter, the climate – people trying to protect the climate – all those campaigns; the homeless campaigns, the supporting refugees campaigns… DPAC [Disabled People Against Cuts], great campaign – you go through all those, and there’s a great wealth of anger at what is happening, of knowledge of what is happening, of understanding how we have to fight back. And it was united when Jeremy was leading the Labour Party. The key question now to me is how we keep that movement coherent, both inside the party and outside. And I think that is not a political party to get seats, electoral seats, that’s not an electoral process, because that’s been tried and it will tend to fail. But keeping that movement coherent, and united, and identifiable. And to do that, it has to be led by recognisable people that the others will trust and recognise. 

What do you think that would look like? 

Read on...

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I’m not sure there is a model for it. Because it’s got to work inside and outside the party, the Labour Party, but also include people who are well outside the party, who have left, who are in other left-wing groups. So maybe it’s not something you join, but something you identify with, and whose actions you support. But I think the key question is keeping that whole energy together, that Jeremy and John spout. And if it isn’t kept together by some organisational structure, it will evaporate, and the left will be back to sectarianism, to demonstrating and campaigning, and knocking on the door from the outside. And that’s the way the left has always organised. The left has been in the streets, with the placards, with the fist in the air, with the list of demands, with newspapers, with pieces – very often, you know, very well thought out, based in principles, based in a kind of very precise analysis – deep analysis – but on the outside. The right wing doesn’t do that. There was one small demonstration against Jeremy Corbyn. But by and large, they don’t demonstrate. They manipulate. They go round the back. They do what Starmer’s done: conspire, and then act in an unprincipled way. The right wing feel that they have access to power; they didn’t need the campaign. They’re just got to mobilise their power in a way that undercuts democratic process. That’s the right wing. And they’re very happy if the left demonstrates. It just shows how safe they are for the establishment. They want the left wing on the streets saying Starmer out. That’s the pattern they understand. And so, I think we don’t want to play that game. We want a coherent, left organisation that brings everyone in from the left and the Labour Party, to all the campaigns, and the left in the trade unions, and almost as many active trade unionists as we can – saying ‘this is the voice of the people, and we demand a party for the people’.

And therefore by default, do you think that by creating this kind of organisation then the Labour Party can be shifted? I think my point being that I think the challenge we have in not only the UK, but many Western, predominantly NATO, I suppose, democracies, these are two party systems, and always have been. Is that then the end goal still to bring about transformative change in the Labour Party?

I think politics is dynamic, I can’t force… I don’t know, I don’t know. I think there has to be an overwhelming demand to fill the political vacuum that exists. Because you have a society based on class conflict, in which the vast majority of people suffer; not only vulnerable people, but there’s a great insecurity across the whole working class and a lot of middle-class people as well: working much harder, doing long hours, the digital technology obviously encourages this. The rate of exploitation has increased. There’s a timescale demanding change because of the climate crisis. So, who can say whether this right-wing clique can be swept aside in the Labour Party, or whether a wider left movement becomes a Labour Party? I don’t know. I don’t know. But clearly no one is representing the great majority of people who are insecure, fearful – some despairing. So there is this great constituency, and in the end that has to have a political representation. There has to be a political instrument to effect the change. But before that you’ve got to have a big movement. And why this moment is so important is that Jeremy has not long left the leadership of the Labour Party. He brought this movement together; it’s still there but fragmenting. Quickly! Keep it together! Because that way we have power. If we fragment into our sects, we’re destroyed. The climate crisis puts a time limit on it. You know, back in the day when I first got involved in politics in the 60s, and certainly when the great texts of socialism were written in the mid-19th century, you could look forward to decades of struggle. We can’t do that now. We know the enemy is at the gate in terms of the environmental issues. It’s happening. Changes have got to come a lot quicker. So there’s an end game now.  But when you talk about the symptom, the main issues come up, because as you say, this is a society built on class division. And the interests of the ruling class are quite different to the interests of the working class. And the working-class interests are security, a home, a job, a wage that will support a family, pensions when you’re old, treatment when you’re sick, education for your kids, a decent environment, a future you can plan with economic security. The ruling class, the owners of business, the great controllers of the economy, they’re not interested in workers having that. What they need is… they’re in a situation of harsh competition, therefore they need the cheapest labour, the cheapest raw materials, access to markets, and continued growth. Because that’s how they keep their profits going. If they don’t make profits, people don’t invest in them. If people don’t invest in them, they go to the wall. So they’re bound on this wheel, you know. Shakespeare’s wheel of fire. They’re bound on this wheel; that’s the motor they’re riding, and the motor has imperatives. They may be really nice people. I don’t know. I haven’t met any. I try not to. They might be really nice people, but they’re driven by these imperatives. And in the end, you know, that’s why social democracy always fails. Because they think we’ll put regulations around them. But… we fought for the eight-hour day. Great. We got the eight hour day. Where’s the eight-hour day now? It doesn’t exist. They fought for minimum wage by the hour. But if you’re not guaranteed any hours, you have no minimum wage. It’s like water running downhill. The ruling class finds a way round every obstacle to secure their profit. And the only way we can achieve security and a future, really, is a socialist society. I mean, Rosa Luxemburg wrote a pamphlet, didn’t she? I think [called] ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, and now it is socialism or survival.

And do you think we will ever see that?

God knows. What happens to the planet? I’m getting old so I’d like it to happen soon!

You’re not that old, Ken! On that… you posed a question in a recent interview, and I’m going to quote it. You asked “is the British establishment so all-powerful, that it can stop transformative change happening?” Do you think that is the case? Do you think we will ever be able to take the power away from the British establishment? Because they’ve got it all wrapped up, haven’t they, really? I mean, if you look at what happened to Corbyn, one of the main drivers was the media. I mean, the BBC, I write about it repeatedly, and it’s one of my main bugbears because of the fact that it’s supposed to be a public service broadcaster. And yet, I think it’s the most toxic media organisation for news, really, in the country – because people trust it, and it uses that and abuses that trust. Do you think the British establishment is too all-powerful to be able to be broken? 

I don’t know. Well, people said that about the divine right of kings, didn’t they? But they collapsed in the 17th century and established a kind of bourgeois revolution, where power went to the landowners not the king – political power – and it became the Glorious Revolution. And so… revolutions happen. Everybody thought Stalinism was all-powerful, but it collapsed. It withered from the inside because of its bureaucratic destruction of the possibility of a real, truly democratic country or state. And yes, in the end history happens. But whether it happens and produces yet another round of fascism, or whether people take power, who knows?

And that’s the truly difficult question, isn’t it? Because I suppose if you look at broader than just maybe since the Industrial Revolution, but if you look at us as a species for thousands of years, these issues really have been the same – in terms of, we structure ourselves in societies where there are few people very well off, who control everything. And everyone else never really achieves emancipation, I suppose, from that. It’s an almost species level problem over history sometimes.

It is. But things progress, you know, I mean, things progress. People are now accustomed to a sense of democracy. Even though they’re denied the reality. But they’re accustomed to that sense of entitlement. So, things evolve. You know, history is dynamic.

Ken, thank you so much for talking to me. It’s always wonderful to have your insights into what’s going on. And I hope you’re right, that eventually we will see some progressive movement that unites everyone come forward – because we all need it.

It’s an imperative, it’s an imperative. It’s a massive opportunity for the left. For all those people still there, still remembering Jeremy and John’s transformative programme. It brought everyone together. We’ve got to seize that moment. You know. In a few years’ time, they will be somewhere else. So, we have to seize this moment

Indeed. And that’s a very good way to end. Thank you, Ken. 


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  • Show Comments
    1. Great interview by Steve Topple with Ken Loach, who made the argument for the socialist organisations and the working class to come together for their common cause.

      It is always harder to build something than it is to destroy it.

      It is therefore, much easier for the right wing neoliberal capitalist class to undermine and destroy any attempts by the left wing socialist working class to build a movement to improve their lot.

      Easier because they own and command vast wealth, the capitalist business organisations, the banks and the main stream media. Easier then to manipulate the destruction of any opposition that may arise.

      As Ken pointed out; in just such a way was Jeremy Corbyn’s political desire to help the working class and under-privileged, so ruthlessly and effectively destroyed.

      Everybody saw that Jeremy Corbyn achieved massive popular support from the people. He built up the membership numbers of the Labour Party so that it became the largest socialist party in Europe.

      This tells us that people want change, away from the plans of the neoliberal manipulators.

      The answer?

      The emergence of strong socialist leadership.

      A new socialist political party/movement.

      Strong socialist unions.

      All inspiring and giving hope back to the working class, so that they may recognise their inherent and overwhelming power base.

      That through the ballot box, they can exercise that power, and finally rid themselves of the neoliberal shackles that bind them.

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